Last weekend, an accomplished leader sent me a short note thanking me for my help on a project at work. Instead of responding with a simple thank you
like a normal human being, my mind went into overdrive.
Can’t be for me. She made a mistake. I didn’t even do that much! And so I replied: “Thank you, but I think this may have been meant for another Diana.”
Yup, I really sent that. (I’m still cringing.) Never mind that I did help with the project a while ago, and that there are no other Dianas in my department. I truly thought the note was meant for someone else.
In less than 30 seconds, I realized how ridiculous my thought process was and immediately regretted my response.
The leader was kind enough to write back highlighting the role I played. “Oh! In that case, thank you!” I replied. But it was too late, the damage had been done—I discredited myself for no reason. Just another fun weekend activity!
When I saw the leader in person the following week, I thanked her for the kind words. What she said next will stick with me for the rest of my life: “Next time, just accept it. I know what I said.”
She went on to tell me a story about a young associate she had nominated for an award. In response, the associate said she didn’t feel qualified. “Imagine that! I nominated her. I KNEW she was qualified!”
So, what’s the issue? It’s not just me and this other associate who can’t take a compliment—according to this Harvard Business Review article, “Nearly 70% of people associate embarrassment or discomfort with the process of being recognized.” That’s a lot of awkward interactions!
Multiple researchers have agreed on the three most common responses to compliments: acceptance, deflection and rejection. You can view them as a scale, with acceptance (confidently open to praise) on one end, and rejection (unable to accept praise at all) on the other. In the middle is deflection. Deflection goes something like this:
Colleague: Great presentation today!
You: Thanks, but I think I could have rambled less.
People deflect compliments for a few reasons—wanting to appear humble is one of them. Overcome this mindset by reminding yourself a gracious “thank you” does not a Kanye West make. Plus, the person giving the compliment is trying to do something nice for you! Let them feel good about that. Don’t rain on their parade by putting yourself down. Instead..thank them and shut up!
As far as my own example above, I think I deflected due to skewed perception. I viewed my role as too small for praise while the leader was gracious enough to thank everyone who played a role—no matter how small.
Chalk it up as another learning moment. Next time, I’ll shut up and take the compliment.